Fundamental Movement Skills: Are they a “Fundamental” part of a young child’s Physical Education?

Sports Blog 5, football, fundamental movement skills

Written by: Paul Rainer and Stuart Jarvis

Paul is an Academic Subject Manager for Sport in the School of Health, Sport, and Professional Practice and a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.

Email: [email protected]

Stuart is a part-time lecturer in Sport at the University of South Wales and the EFL Blended Learning Coordinator.

Email: [email protected]

We often wonder how a parent would feel if their child left primary school deficient in numeracy and literacy skills, unable to read, write, add and subtract and yet we are constantly amazed that people still accept that there is no issue with young children leaving primary school unable to perform basic Fundamental Movement Skills (FMS).

 Children Playing Sport

FMS are viewed as the building blocks for more complex and specialised movement skills and the early years of school education (i.e., primary) have been recognised as a critical time for young children to acquire such skills. They are common movement activities (e.g., running, balancing, catching, jumping, throwing) with specific observable patterns and form the building blocks that underpin the learning and development of more complicated sport and movement skills. Further, there is strong evidence supporting positive associations between FMS proficiency and multiple aspects of health-related physical fitness (e.g., cardiorespiratory fitness, musculoskeletal fitness and body composition) as well as social and psychological benefits and is thought to provide the foundation for an active lifestyle (see FMS & Health-Related Outcomes). In spite of these well publicised benefits, and the fact that the development of FMS is embedded within the National Curriculum in England, Northern Ireland and Wales, it is widely reported that children are not engaging in enough physical activity to ensure both short and long-term health benefits.

Several studies have reported that physical activity declines dramatically as young children advance from primary to secondary school with children losing on average an hour of exercise in the week. Aligned to this, our research has documented that many children are leaving primary education having failed to gain proficiency in FMS and this may severely hinder youth participation in many diverse types of leisure physical activities, games and sports and impact on physical fitness (See Jarvis and colleagues, 2018 – FMS, Health-Related Physical Activity and Self-Concept). Consequently, if children are unable to perform basic FMS the resultant outcome is likely to be a reduced number of opportunities for engagement in physical activity later in their lives as they will not have the pre-requisite skills to be active. This has generally been termed as the “proficiency barrier” (see Seefeldt, 1980), where children, because of their poor FMS, find it difficult to participate competently in sport and physical activity when more complex movement and sport related movements are required. Critically, this “barrier” often culminates in the time when children progress from primary to secondary school and are expected to engage in a range of sports and activities that support the secondary school PE curriculum. 

Children in Sport

What are FMS?

It would be of surprise to many that there are in excess of 40 FMS and it is commonly expected that these should be acquired by 11-12 years of age, corresponding with when a child leaves primary education. FMS are typically categorised into 3 distinct themes: Locomotor skills; Manipulative skills; and Non-Locomotor skills (see Figure 1). The categorisation of these FMS helps teachers readily identify with the skills and assists in the sequential and progressive learning of these as first children look to become proficient in isolated skills and then in combination. 

Categories of Fundamental Movement Skills, Sports Blog

It is important that, on a continuum of FMS skill development, the locomotor movement skills are mastered prior to more complex manipulative skills (manipulative actions require greater multi joint co-ordination, stability of the trunk and object manipulation in order to master the skill).

FMS and the Primary School Environment

Primary schools provide an environment for regular and structured movement experiences that afford the opportunity for children to acquire movement proficiency that is crucial to their continuation in physical activity. The National Curriculum for PE in primary schools articulates that pupils should develop competence and confidence in FMS in a range of challenging situations across different physical activities. Nevertheless, a common misconception is that from birth these skills are naturally acquired and developed through engagement in PE or physical activity. Indeed, many children will develop rudimentary forms of movement patterns, although without appropriate practice, instruction and opportunity, they will struggle to achieve a mature form of FMS proficiency (it can take up to 9-10 hours of high-quality PE teaching for a child to become proficient in each FMS – see Rainer & Jarvis, 2019 – FMS & Primary to Secondary School Transition).

Critically, there are “windows of opportunity” when young children are most receptive to the learning and development of these skills (Lubans et al. 2010 – Fundamental Movement Skills in Children and Adolescents). For example, between the ages of 7-8 years, children would be expected to be proficient in less complex FMS (i.e., catch, vertical jump) and in more complex FMS (e.g., leap, hop, strike) by ages 9-10 years. In spite of this, however, research that we have conducted at the University of South Wales with over 300 primary school children of 10-11 years of age showed that less than 10% of both boys and girls were able to demonstrate total competency in any of the featured FMS (see Rainer & Jarvis, 2019 – FMS & Primary to Secondary School Transition).

Children Playing Sport

In contrast, research has reported that children with high levels of FMS proficiency around this age show little decline in physical activity participation throughout crucial periods, such as the transition to secondary school and into adulthood. Therefore, whilst primary PE may present the best opportunity to learn and develop FMS it is questionable as to whether primary schools are currently maximising the opportunities they have to support the development of FMS. In line with this, research conducted at USW (See Challenges of Providing High Quality Physical Education and School Sport) has demonstrated that primary PE struggles to compete in a “crowded curriculum” and often becomes the lesson where pupils “let off steam” rather than providing the appropriate environment to allow FMS to develop. Admittedly, young children will have fun and be physically active, although studies have demonstrated that this type of “free-play” does not enhance FMS development. 

Current Issues with the Teaching of FMS

In general, it must be noted that those teaching PE and FMS in the primary school are typically non-specialists, lack confidence to teach the subject, and often have completed less than 10 hours of specific PE training during their initial teacher training. In addition, they struggle with poor facilities and essentially see other aspects of the national curriculum as their main priority (See Rainer et al. 2015 – Primary Physical Education). In addition, the teaching of these skills should reflect an instructional model that supports the development of skill acquisition, whereby the FMS is broken down into three constituent phases: (1) preparation; (2) execution; and (3) recovery. A child would need to become competent in each of these phases before full proficiency could be achieved in any FMS. Critically, a teacher would need to observe the movement, be critical of any deficiency in movement, diagnose problems and plan appropriate activities to correct this yet we must remember that these are non-specialist teachers. 

If you can't catch, run or throw - you can't play!

In conclusion, the importance of proficiency for children in as many FMS as possible cannot be underestimated as many of the skills possess transferable aspects across many sports (for example – bowling in cricket shares similar characteristics with throwing a javelin). Children who do not possess proficiency in FMS will often find themselves unable to participate competently in a range of activities as they have not mastered the pre-requisite FMS. Moreover, if, for example, they cannot throw, then participation in those sports and activities that require proficiency in catching will be limited (e.g., cricket, athletics, volleyball, tennis and badminton). As a consequence, the teaching and provision of FMS in primary school physical education could be just as important as testing numeracy and literacy prior to the step up to secondary education for promoting lifelong engagement in physical activity, which is deemed as an important step in developing the physical and mental health of the population.


Seefeldt, V. (1980). Developmental motor patterns: Implications for elementary school physical education. In C. Nadeau, W. Holliwell, K. Newell, & G. Roberts (Eds.), Psychology of motor behavior and sport (pp. 314–323). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

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